Confessions of a Food Bank Coordinator

White BerriesPart of my day-job includes coordinating Lac La Biche’s main community food bank — The Waskaysoo Community Food Bank. We rely on food and cash donations from local citizens, businesses, corporations, churches, schools and various community groups. It takes a community to raise a food bank, and we’re grateful for the amount of local participation we get.

But there are days…

Like every job, there are days when the frustration levels are high and the stress is powerful. Like any other job, some of these stressors are hidden. I know I didn’t expect all of what I’ve experienced over the past five and half years. And while I hope you read this post with a desire to learn, I also hope you read it with a bit of grace (dare I ask for humour?).

GIVE ME REAL FOOD!

I get yet another phone call. Yet another person has a case of Tang (drink crystals) to donate.

Yeah… sure… great.

Not only have I been advocating for REAL JUICE for years now (not “juice from concentrate”, not “fruit drink”, and definitely not powdered crystals), but I’ve been trying to offer some basic nutrition education and skills to those who ask for it when the come to the food bank. In reality, the best way to get that vitamin C is to eat real fruit and drink water. That’s not possible at our little food bank. We don’t have cold storage for fresh produce. So often we operate at a “next best thing” level here. Real fruit juice is not 100% nutritious, but it’s not dyed sugar either.

We have limited space, too, and I have to make sure that space is utilized in the best ways possible. That means: real food for real meals. Tang doesn’t qualify. Usually it ends up in the free bin and people can take it or leave as they please. I know I’m supposed to model gratitude, but I confess it’s often extremely difficult to be grateful for junk food that we expect people to make a meal out of.

This goes for sugary cereals, candy, chips, jell-o, chocolate bars and hot chocolate too. I could rattle off plenty more “foods” that really don’t qualify as food, but this post does need a cut-off point. Helpful hint: when giving to the food bank and you’re putting stuff in a bag, ask yourself: “Could this be made into a real meal for a real family?” If not, maybe rethink your donation.

GIVE ME MY SPACE!

We are a small, teeny tiny food bank. We’re able to be open once a week to serve our friends and neighbors, but we don’t have warehouse capacity like food banks in the big cities do. When kind-hearted donors give crates of relish or mayo, again I sometimes grit my teeth. It’s not food that can make a meal! Sometimes it really does feel like this giving racket is about making the donors feel good. But when I’ve communicated over and over again our spatial needs, people still seem to think we’ll accept anything at anytime.

The truth is, Alberta Health Services says we have to keep all food stuffs 6″ off the ground, on safe shelving, away from contaminants, and within suitable reaching distance for people packing hampers. Where am I supposed to put boxes of mayo when that space could be used for soup? Or pasta? Or rice? And why are YOU upset when I tell you “No, I’m sorry. We can’t use that.” It doesn’t mean we don’t need food. It just means we don’t need the kind of food you’re trying to give. If that ruffles feathers, oh well. We have to advocate for the people who come here first and foremost.

Helpful hint: “Could my donation be made into a real meal for a real family?” If not, maybe rethink your donation. (I hear a theme happening).

GIVE US OUR GRATITUDE!

This is a touchy one. I am grateful for the generosity of our little town. Really, I am! We have the best students, the best schools, the best faith groups, the best stores all trying to take good care of us.

But sometimes — sometimes — it seems like people are out for pats on the back more than they are the truth about why people access food banks. I confess I sometimes get frustrated with donors or volunteers who need all sorts of recognition for their efforts above any beyond a “thank you”.

Trust me, I believe in giving credit where credit is due. And yes, good PR is all a part of nonprofit work. But if you’re signing up to volunteer at Christmastime because that’s the thing to do at Christmas, maybe hang up the phone. Call somewhere else. Everyone and their dog wants to help at the food bank at Christmas. The rest of the year? Maybe. So-so. Perhaps. Not so much. Hey there, Uber-Volunteer, where’d ya go???

I understand Thanksgiving and Christmas put us all in giving moods, but so many frontline services like ours get overwhelmed with wants from volunteers that we get a bit snowed under.

One time, a lady was upset that I didn’t call her back by Christmas to help volunteer. She was trying to teach her children about how there was poverty in Lac La Biche (a good thing!), but her nose was out of joint because we couldn’t accommodate her volunteer wishes in her timeframe. She then told me off that “obviously” the food bank didn’t need help. That tells me it was about her and her kids and not about what we really needed.

Helpful hint: in your efforts to teach the younger generation about local poverty, reach out to organizations dealing with this poverty and ask first what they truly need. If we say “No” to volunteering and that a cash donation would help us float through the winter months, go with that. And if you really want hands-on, organize your own food drive — gather, sort, box and deliver all of it. Trust me, you’ll get the real deal.

I’m going to switch gears here for a moment while still remaining in this stream of gratitude:

“The poor will eat anything.”

I hear this lie again and again and again.

People: the poor will NOT eat anything! Sometimes the only emotion or mental state we allow people in crisis or poverty is GRATITUDE. If people aren’t thankful for what we’ve so generously given, then they’re the ingrates. They are the ones making life harder on themselves. But in reality, this is our snobbery and ignorance together at their finest.

Just because poverty exists, it doesn’t mean life stops. Diabetes still exists. And I’m going to give the senior in front of me diagnosed with it Tang to drink? Allergies still exist. And I’m going to give the family in front of me (whose child is severely allergic to gluten) lots and lots of mac’n’cheese?

And you know what else?

The rest of our humanity still lives in or outside of poverty. Which means holistically that our faiths and religions are still very much a part of who we are, even when impoverished or in crisis. Am I to force the Muslim family in front of me to be grateful for canned ham? Am I to poo-poo the Orthodox father in front of me for not accepting canned shellfish because that’s what we have in stock? Part of empowering people is recognizing all of their needs, poverty or crisis or not. Trust me: when you take the time to honour and respect someone’s faith and traditions, it goes a long way past a few bags of groceries. Showing that we care for the whole person as best as we’re able is what we’re trying to be about here.

Helpful hint: if you have specific allergies or dietary restrictions (medical, religious or otherwise), make it your personal mandate to donate items that are helpful to you in your life. You have no idea how much of a blessing those items become.

Going back to this practice of forcing the poor to feel gratitude and gratitude ONLY, we really need to stop.

Please. Stop.

When people come to the food bank, all kinds of emotions are running high: anxiety, shame, fear, exhaustion, shock (“I never thought I’d find myself here!”), anger, and food insecurity (sure a few bags of groceries helps now, but what about 3 days from now??? And if you’ve never experienced that feeling, be very careful about your response to this state of mind). Sometimes clients take out these stressful emotions on me.

Why?

Because I’m there.

And I confess some days it gets to me. On a slow day, I might see 10-12 families. On a super-busy day, I might see 20-30 families. That’s A LOT of emotion to embrace and be present for during the course of a day. But you need to trust me when I say that it is rare that outbursts have anything to do with me or the food bank. People coming here are worrying about where rent money is going to come from… about who’s going to drive their cancer-ridden relative to the city when there’s no gas money… about who’s safe to babysit the kids after fleeing an abusive relationship… about pounding the pavement for the 100th time for a job that never seems to materialize… about who’s going to pay for grandpa’s funeral expenses and groceries at the same time.

And we demand that people be grateful for what we give them?

How about we do some neighbor-honouring instead? By that I mean, how about we honour the courage it takes to walk through the doors of any food bank knowing the stigma we’ve created?

I get it: it’s easy to judge, especially when I’ve just served a family of 8 in “desperate” need. Then I take a fast lunch break, run to Subway for a salad, and see the same family buying themselves footlong subs for everyone. It becomes so easy to judge people, whether I have the facts or not.

The truth is, the family probably doesn’t get to eat out very often. How many of us treat ourselves during stressful times (whether we can afford it or not)? A lot of us!

Helpful hint: don’t reduce someone’s feelings to simple gratitude when they access the food bank. We don’t know the whole story, nor do we know how they’re handling their stories. What we do know is that life is hard and complicated. That alone should spur us on towards love and grace.

And by the way: the “poor” absolutely do NOT need to be grateful for your expired baby formula, out-of-date soup, or any other of your groceries stored for too long in your pantry. Helpful hint: if you aren’t going to feed it to your own family, perhaps reconsider giving it to us to give to someone else’s family.

The health inspector will immediately go to the baby food/formula shelf first. Period. While I am given a bit of latitude when it comes to best before dry/canned goods, there is NO room for expired baby anything. So when you donate a crate of formula that expired in 2009 (the earliest I received one year was expired from 2002), drive on past the food bank and go to the dump. We can’t use it. No exceptions.

We do have a “free bin” as I mentioned before: groceries that really don’t make a meal, over-stock, outdated stuff or damaged stuff are all put here. We have people that can and do dumpster dive for extra food. So instead of that happening, we leave these goods out for people to take at will fully knowing the food is past their dates or damaged.

GIVE ME MY BREATH!

Between trying to accommodate donors and volunteers, being present with each person requiring the service, public education and always, always, always asking for money, I need to decompress. I need to have lots of self-care. I know you want to volunteer… I know you want to donate… I know you need to access… I know you need this and you need that.

I know.

But there are times I have to close my office door for a few moments, turn on some quiet music (or sit in total silence), stretch, and do some mindful breathing. This line of work isn’t simply gathering and redistributing food. It’s about being present for people wherever they are at; it’s about hearing difficult stories; it’s about advocating for better food; it’s about being grateful for foods I wouldn’t usually be grateful for.

It’s about a lot of things.

And I need to take care of myself as a part of this food bank system.

My dream?

I’d love to have a “grocery-free” food bank, where people come and receive gift cards to local grocery stores and they go shop for themselves. Fresh greens, a bag of apples, some milk — whatever they need because they know their needs best of all. Not me. Not you. The people.

“But who’s going to abuse the system?”

Bar none, this is the first/near-to-first question donors ask me when I go out and do public presentations. We still don’t trust the poor; we still maintain that most people accessing free services are freeloaders; and heaven forbid we get taken advantage of.

If this is the first question we pose when talking about empowering the people who use the food bank, then I truly believe that it’s us with the problem. We’re more concerned with our dollars then we are changing our mindsets towards desiring deep change in our communities. We still want to control, to point fingers, to create the stigma. We still fear being taken advantage of. We still believe we know better than the poor, rather than believing those who are living in present tough circumstances.

So there you have it: the confessions of a food bank coordinator. The good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly.

Sometimes it’s just too heavy and exhausting trying to elevate donors to their expectations; sometimes it’s too hard trying to fill hampers enough to feed a family of 10; and sometimes it’s hard to not take personally venom from would-be volunteers who assume ahead of time that we’ll just take in anyone to do anything.

But there’s great beauty too.

Like I said, we have amazing youth in our communities. They are working hard to educate their families about best-by dates, best before dates, and expiry dates. We have churches that ask us on a monthly basis what we need and how much. We have folks that walk in with grocery gift cards in hand without prompting or fundraising. And we have amazing people coming to the food bank — the single mom who can pull off a birthday dinner with canned tuna, cake mix, and rice; the family of 7 that takes in their 2 special needs grandchildren; the couple working 4 jobs between them so their kids can have a roof over their heads; and the seniors who manage to stretch their pensions further than I ever could.

Food sharing is a holy act. I believe this. Confessing the frustrations in the current way of sharing is only a small part of that ordinary holiness that has so much potential to create compassion. Take from it what you will.

13 comments

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  1. darryl

    I hope this is not seen.I sold so many personal effects before after layoffs..over years of boom and bust….but still never helped from the food bank……when I need them..b .ut.I have always helped our food bank.
    We moved to edmonton…she moved 8 months earlier…I got laid off….son is in the hospital…..I broke down and went to a food bank and cried…thought we would lose our house; As soon as I said I did not want to talk to the Minister…I was going to talk to my priest later…..I was totally ignored
    After 30 minutes….I left crying…so I guess we starve

    Like

    • erinbecky123

      Thank you for your thoughts, but I would disagree. Community food banks are run by the community. If people accessing them are being mistreated, it’s because of us. Not the government. Myself, I applaud the new PM finally grasping the idea that Canada has more resources and space to share than most countries. In terms of international support and global friendship, I believe it’s our responsibility to share what we have.

      Like

  2. debrachouinard

    Thank you so much for your brilliant share! It does take a lot of courage to open up and write about your experince working front line. As a front line worker myselfwhat you wrote really resonates with me.
    But you forgot one thing….

    Canned beans!!

    for some reason they are also a top item that gets donnated (often out of date and seldom chosen.)

    Like

    • Nadine

      To be honest,I cried very hard while reading this. My boyfriend and I lost our jobs in consecutive months and it took me two months to find a job, even then theystarted me out makingg $4.00 an hour with a percentage of cash to be picked up at the en of the week. My boyfried still hasnt found a job, not for lack of trying.
      There are several food banks in my area, but sadly there is a process you have to go through before you can be “accepted” and because we don’t have any kids, we don’t qualify. So regrettably, we had to stoop low after not eating for three days and tried to shoplift from the local grocery store, and got caught. Luckily we didn’t get arrested and the manager of the store was nice enough to give us some groceries(I still havent eaten fruits or vegetables in over three months). But when the cops showed up, the first thing they asked was “Well, why don’t you have any money?” “Do you do any drugs?” “Do you have an alcohol problem?” They simply couldnt wrap their minds around the fact that the total of our bills greatly surpassed our total income. “Well you need to get a better job or work more hours.” I still search everyday for a better place, I dont have a college degree, I’m only 20 years old and the only business I’ve worked in are restaurants. I tried save the first couple paychecks that recieved from Friday’s, but we had to pay car insurance, gas, and water bills. We didnt need to pay rent because we’re being evicted and there was no way i could have saved 1,100 when i only made about $400 a month.
      We have to be out of here by next Monday, I have no idea where we’re going. We barely have enough money for one week in a hotel. We’ve asked some friends and hopefully they’ll let us sleep on their couch for a few weeks. I honestly have no idea how to handle this situation and I am truly scared for what’s to come.

      Like

  3. Didda

    I know this is pure knit picking, but when I had to use the food bank, a jar of mayo would have been amazing.
    The amount of things that I can turn into something palatable with mayo is astounding.

    Like

    • erinbecky123

      I don’t think it’s nit picking at all. People accessing food banks are the most creative people in world! What people imagine from a can of sardines and flour is profound. What I’m saying is that, as a frontline worker, part of my responsibility to the public is to educate ourselves about giving smarter. Not everyone can make magic with mayo, and mayo is certainly not at the top of the nutritional list. Food banks aren’t perfect in giving perfectly healthy foods, but we can ask donors to be aware of the need to offer real food — really good food — that will carry kids through a school day, a person on the job, a family’s bday party, and so on.

      Like

      • Didda

        That is a great point.
        Now that I am in the position, I donate back, much, much more than I ever needed. My priorities for donations are canned fruit and vegetables. I never once received any fruit, which stuck with me. Beans, raman noodles, and boxes of crackers and mac and cheese were the mainstays of what I took home.
        The idea of just giving out gift cards is amazing, and I hope it can catch on!

        Liked by 1 person

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